Tiny Guides on the Last Adventure: Doll Play in the Work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves

Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

Tiny Guides on the Last Adventure: Doll Play in the Work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves

Abstraction catches my hand in hers; I can feel she’s there, hot with ideas, a spool of suggestions, the answer for a painting, a perfectly unexpected Boogie Woogie.

— Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Soul Bolt, 2012 

IN APRIL, 2014, two months before she died of cancer at age 51, artist Jennifer Wynne Reeves posted this notice to members of the “beautification committee,” as she referred to her followers on Facebook: 

WELCOME invention, preserve our Klingon fight, admire our grooved foreheads and dog teeth. It will keep us alive for longer than is thought possible. Over a hundred years ago, Mary Baker Eddy wrote, ‘We must look deep into realism instead of only accepting the outward sense of things.’ Beautiful. Making and buying art for the market place is the same as dumping the warp core; bad for the star ship Voyager; bad for those warring Klingon AbExers. Don’t worry. We can do it again. Visuals are exceedingly variable, each one a mathematical equation, reproducible, logical, Vulcan, spiritually relevant and applicable to the limits of paint.

“Grooved foreheads and dog teeth” describes cancer’s alien countenance: an irrational killing machine that has broken through the body’s defenses at warp speed. The phrase reappears in the title of a recent exhibition of two bodies of Reeves’s work, “A Bolt of Soul: Grooved Foreheads and Dog Teeth,” on view at CB1 Gallery in downtown Los Angeles from June 6–July 18, 2015. As co-agents of the Reeves’s archive with BravinLee Programs, CB1 showed a selection of small paintings from 1997 as well as a larger, more recent group of abstract paintings and various works on paper, all made in the year before Reeves passed away. Despite a buoyant spirit and quiet comic presence, the tendency for melancholy and — particularly in the earlier work from ’97 — reference to American folk art (and its somber color palette) casts a shadow over the exhibition. 

Reeves had survived cervical cancer in 2005, loosing both her ovaries, before being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, known as The Terminator, the most aggressive and common form of brain tumors and one that has also proven resistant to therapeutic interventions. Starting in January 2012, Reeves endured three operations to remove the tumors from her brain. She continued to paint throughout her battle against cancer, using symbolic imagery to form meaning from her experience and as means to articulate and sublimate the emotions between diagnosis and death into her own Endgame.

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Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Untitled (Spiritual Ejaculation), 2011, mixed media on archival inkjet print photo, 13 x 19 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves and CB1 Gallery.

In an interview with Julia Schwartz in Figure/Ground (March 1, 2013), Reeves spoke of watching skaters in the Winter Olympics, saying they were immaterial, “pure lines, nothing but lines.” Against figurative convention, she similarly depicts the anxieties and experiences of life with cancer through abstraction and symbolism. Composed of awkwardly twisted contortions of wire and paper, Untitled (Spiritual Ejaculation), (2011) evokes a large angry erection letting loose a whimsical lasso of color in defiance of gravity — embodying a sense of “gleeful saturnalia” (Jenny Diski, “A Diagnosis,” Sept. 11, 2014, London Review of Books). (For Jung, “the phallus always means the creative mana, the power of healing and fertility.” [Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 16, 1966] The image explodes with rude creativity while the photographed highway gives a distanced perspective along the journey’s lonely road, reminiscent of Thelma and Louise discovering their freedom, driving into their own wild sunset before reality slammed into them, head on. In her self-published 2012 book, Soul Bolt, Reeves wrote:

Orgasm arrives when the mind finally lets go of its grip on the body, its imprisonment in matter, its resistance to art, until the painting is completely open-ended. A spirit-ward cum is delivered. I walk away from the picture on the wall, my heart seeded.

I continue my exploration of Reeves’s work through her still vibrant presence on Facebook (Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Memorial Page, 2009–’14). I grow dizzy reading her posts, scrolling backward in time while trying to reposition events in the normal forward flow of time. (After each digression — to look at albums or follow links — Facebook returns me to her non-existent future and I begin to scroll down again, toward her life.) Reeves explored the artist-as-subject in various forms, including poetry; a graphic novel, The Anyway Ember; and her self-published book, Soul Bolt. In this way, she easily maneuvered the performative aspect of putting her cancer diary on social media as a seamless extension of her life and work.

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From Jennifer Wynne Reeves (Memorial Page), September 10, 2010. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

Irritated with digging through Facebook, I stop trying to analyze its structural dysfunction and discover the comments under her posts. The comment stream becomes another element of the on-stage life Reeves creates. Sometimes, commenters demonstrate the compelling urge to flesh out narrative fragments to her work, like would-be collaborators. When a commenter remarks that Reeves’s set up of figures and backgrounds, “has something to do with being a girl and playing with dolls,” Reeves responds to the rather clumsy observation with indignation, “I hated dolls.” Lurking in the reply are frustration and defensiveness, perhaps at any suggestion that women artists are diminished when the work reflects their gender experiences, while male artists referencing surfboards and baseball tend to be celebrated as über dudes by the male-heavy collector base. Despite the stubborn social and cultural prejudice that girls play with dolls while boys play with action figures (and that describing work as “playing with dolls” belittles it and takes it out of context), the Facebook discussion points to the pivotal way in which doll-play can be a guide to unlock unconscious narratives and express difficult emotions.

Despite her objections to the doll comment, Reeves continues to reconfigure sets and figures into new arrangements and posts these on Facebook as an extension of her practice. Some include narrative sequence like, “Woops, I’m an Asshole,” published as a “book” on Facebook, September 22, 2009.

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From Jennifer Wynne Reeves (Memorial Page), September 9, 2010. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

In Soul Bolt, Reeves’s immaterial figures present different degrees of psychological anguish and absurdity. The diminutive beings, cobbled together accumulations of painted debris, play out silent scenes of operatic grandeur or teeter on the edge, in parody of the Sublime. A new level of mystery is introduced when Reeves begins to pair the figures with photographed landscapes, placing the iconography of the dream world onto a representation of the real, replicating the inside-out feeling of terminal illness. 

One character, the Bride, continues to reappear, functioning as both an archetypal reference to love — or unrequited love — and fertility, as well as a folksy nod to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–’23). The Bride represents a doubling down on a kind of Symbolist Dadaism, incorporating the romantic iconography of the bride, while working within the non-rules of what has come to be known as The Duchamp Effect (after the 1996 book by Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon) with the humble materials of a driven outsider. Thierry de Duve describes this phenomenon in Artforum, November 2013, as a “withdrawal from traditional artistic agency and to [a] redefinition of authorship on novel, much less deterministic grounds.” 

In an earlier reference, Reeves’s actors are descendants of the crude, primitively abstracted figures and masks from Africa that inspired Picasso and led him to into abstraction. This mask imagery was co-opted by the West in its re-discovery of the importance of the unconscious (Freud) and dreams (Jung) as a means to navigate and articulate lived experience. Like early Carroll Dunham, Reeves straddles this territory between the imaginary and the real. On Facebook, she posts, “The Abstractionists showed us what the inner life looks like. And now that that’s more or less done, some are attempting to show what it looks like between these views.”

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From Soul Bolt, courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

Soul Bolt manifests as a pocket-sized book that combines text and images to create mini-narratives. The tiny reproductions are mostly high contrast; the little pieces of bright color pop against the neutrals. (At this size, the entire collection of text-and-images would fit into Duchamp’s suitcase of art, La Boîte-en-valise, 1935–’41). Reeves’s figures become stranger and more mythic and the scenes are richer, but the essential figure/ground retains the sense of an intimate and theatrical dream world.

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Jennifer Wynne Reaves, Your Earflaps Wave Goodbye, 2011, acrylic, wire, wood on birch hardwood panel, 26 ¼ x 37 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves and CB1 Gallery.

The photographed scenery in the book is often blanketed with snow, a barren emptiness functioning as an abstraction for the voyage home or, as Reeves puts it, “an infinite emptiness that is so, so full.” Whiteness is also used as a field that is both infinite and full in the abstract paintings, Escape from the Cement Station and Your Earflaps Wave (both from 2011), but the intervention with reality and the strange space made by the photographed landscapes holds more power and describes a palpable state of not-belonging. The perspective recedes and the figures gather in a ritual of mourning, the artist identifying with both the mourners and the object of mourning. As the body is subjected to medical interventions, the mind distances itself toward an acceptance of the inevitable and a striving for transcendence.

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From Soul Bolt, from the series, “Imagination Troop.” Courtesy the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves. 

“The hoary horizon rolls out the red carpet for a motley crew like us: sadists, longhorns and gnats suspended in amber. We’re cut loose in the frost to be the great ones we are — ragtag musicians playing a mum melody too radical to be hummed.” JWR, Soul Bolt

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From Soul Bolt, detail from “Insights Invite From the Big Us.” Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

Soul Bolt covers Symbolism’s familiar themes: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Reality isn’t rational or materialistic; it is primitive, melancholy, lonely, and full of anxiety. Reeves, however, is no pale Ophelia imitating a lily pad; she refuses to play in the boys’ clubhouse and instead finds humor in all those stilted stereotypes. “Playing with dolls” became an act of healing, allowing Reeves to speak to the unspeakable and to create a personal myth as she strove to control her narrative to the very end. These little allies that marched along beside her, guiding her along the final stretch, were never granted artwork status and exist only on Facebook and in the pages of Soul Bolt; their job done, they disband.

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Odilon RedonL’Oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’infini (The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity), 1882. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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Jennifer Wynne Reeves (Memorial Page), July 28, 2012. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

In Soul Bolt, Reeves wrote,

The sentencing hit us hard. Not guilty of a brain tumor, your Honor, not guilty! But there’s no appeal in matter’s court. No, not here—not when you’ve been sentenced to the electric chair by a dire statistic. The prosecutors think life is a mere matter, or matter inhabited by a weak wisp of spirituality. After the surgery the docs can’t find any trace of the tumor, but experience says it’s still there, biding its time. You must assume that what matter has done in the past, it will do again regardless of what you think. Fall in line; get ready to die or live with side effects you cannot abide — a state that makes you contact the Hemlock Society.

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Jennifer Wynne Reeves (Memorial Page), October 3, 2012. Courtesy of the Estate of Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

Feet tingling from chemo-induced neuropathy, Reeves dances her boogie woogie to “Strawberry Fields”: “… nothing is real and nothing to get hung up about …” Jennifer Wynne Reeves lived every moment of her life for art, sustained to the very end by creativity in its purest form, emotional honesty, and a striving for spiritual transcendence. Her work lives on reflecting her graceful humility and passionate spirit, “My soul bolts from here, lives on a no-time timeline in art.”


Miyoshi Barosh is a Los Angeles–based conceptual artist working in a wide range of materials and techniques while humorously exposing the sociopolitical underpinnings of American culture.

LARB Contributor

Miyoshi Barosh is a Los Angeles–based conceptual artist working in a wide range of materials and techniques while humorously exposing the sociopolitical underpinnings of American culture. Her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles and New York, most recently in the COLA (City of Los Angeles) Individual Artist Fellowship Show at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, in Body Conscious: Southern California Fiber at the Craft in America Center, and in her most recent solo show, Feel Better, at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. She is a recipient of a 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and, in May 2014, was an Artist-in-Residence at the Pilchuck Glass School. As an editor and publisher, she has worked on book-length interviews with artists such as Vija Celmins, Mike Kelley, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as well as with poet David Rattray and cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer.


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